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Robert Caro starts The Years of Lyndon Johnson, his multi-volume and as-yet-unfinished biography of the president, deep in the bowels of the earth. The Path to Power —book one of Caro’s truly luminous project—begins with an exploration of the geologic forces that forged the Texas Hill Country, the very lands that gave rise to LBJ eons later.
You have to start somewhere. That’s problem No. 1 with Noelle K. Tan’s “Expedition Journals: United States of America, Vol. 1,” a project as ambitious as the title suggests. The photographer’s fifth show with Civilian Art Projects sounds like it aims to be the first of several dozen. Her exhibit even references the Encyclopédie, a compilation of all Enlightenment knowledge edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert in the late 18th century—to the tune of 28 volumes and more than 70,000 articles.
“History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies,” said Alexis de Tocqueville, another observer who set out to write the book on America. (He at least had the advantage of actually being here near the beginning.) Tan’s work, instead, takes on America all at once—and the result is something that might make these French grand messieurs blush.
Through a dozen photographs, the artist examines the Civil War, the Gold Rush, the Manhattan Project, and the Interstate Highway System—a wildly indiscriminate selection of scenes from American history. Tan stitches together several photos in each print, painstakingly building her images using negatives taken during her travels. Apparently the themes of history, poetry, and philosophy govern her crytpic, collage-like prints: the same taxonomy of knowledge that Diderot et al. borrowed from Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning.
“Expedition Journals” is a confusing, contrary, even baffling exhibit. With her photos, Tan strives to make a historical point, not an aesthetic one, so the compositions are careless. That might be fine for something more photojournalistic or conceptual. Yet any straightforward statement these photos might offer up about history is rendered illegible by Tan’s deliberate printing process—which means the composition matters after all. There are some exceptions that work well, namely “Frontier Towns” and “Westward Expansion,” but these successful compositions seem to be happy accidents of a process focused on producing something else.
As ever, Tan’s printing process is articulate and outstanding. She has a mastery of darkroom processes and manipulation that is unrivaled among photographers showing in D.C.; I think it would be fair to say that she makes her work using the darkroom, not the camera. In the past, she has produced haunting silver gelatin prints in which almost every detail falls away, save for one or two—the outline of a shed or a wisp of smoke. “Drawings,” she calls these. Some of that touch is on view in the tea-stained photos of “Expedition Journals,” but these sepia grace notes and washes can’t save the reckless compositions.
There’s no roadmap for “Expedition Journals,” no sense of where Tan is going or where she’s coming from, but she seems to have a highly structured, linear, encyclopedic experience in mind for the viewer, who winds up lost somewhere in the middle of… something. It’s a problem for Tan, too: How can she square so much structure with her abundant love of the West, the frontier, the winding road, the desert plain? It’s clear she loves this free aspect of the country, not exhaustive French librarians. Here’s hoping she finds a way to express it again.
4718 14th St. NW. Free. civilianartprojects.com